Conductor celebrated for his readings of Richard Strauss
Wolfgang Sawallisch's early physically restrained performances gave way to intense passion later in life. Photograph: Alamy
Once described as "a sphinx in a tailcoat", the German conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch, who has died aged 89, conducted supremely idiomatic performances of Richard Strauss. His personality always melded seamlessly with the music he conducted. Though he enjoyed great veneration, the suave and personable Sawallisch did not cultivate it. "He never made a star of himself," said the soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. "He wants to make music … untrammelled." She added: "It's a wonderful sensation. It's as if you're in private."
Sawallisch's restrained physicality, contradicted by the occasional, discreet leap at the end of The Firebird, later gave way to a particularly intense passion. In middle age he had a certain emotional aloofness, yet his readings of Shostakovich and Brahms symphonies in his 70s were described as "suffocating" in their extremity. His Beethoven Pastoral symphony left hardened recording engineers in tears. While his early 1970s recordings of the Schumann symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle had long been considered classics, Sawallisch eclipsed even his own standard with the Philadelphia Orchestra's 2003 live recording of the Symphony No 2 – despite such ill health that some feared he would collapse mid-performance.
The spur of this Indian summer was a personal sadness. Sawallisch's change in temperament – which showed itself only in certain repertoire – dated from the death of his wife of 46 years, Mechthild, in 1998. In the months following, the maestro was known to break down during rehearsals of Austro-Germanic repertoire, but he refused to discuss his inner life, aside from saying: "I've never felt such a close relationship with music."
Born in Munich, Sawallisch studied at the city's Wittelsbacher-Gymnasium and the Hochschule für Musik. His training as a pianist was interrupted by the second world war, during which he was a radio operator in the German army stationed in Italy. He was captured and spent time in both American and British PoW camps. After the war, he started as an opera house répétiteur in Augsburg, Bavaria, then graduated to conducting there. He furthered his operatic activities as general music director in Aachen (1953-58), Wiesbaden (1958-60) and Cologne (1960-63).
He had early success with the Berlin Philharmonic and at the Bayreuth festival and was among the youngest to ever conduct those orchestras. However, Sawallisch turned down offers from the Metropolitan Opera and Vienna State Opera early on, claiming he lacked experience. In doing so, he risked alienating two of the industry's great power brokers, Herbert von Karajan (who offered the Vienna invitation) and the Met's Rudolf Bing.
Instead, Sawallisch pursued three careers concurrently. He headed the Vienna Symphony Orchestra (1960-70) as principal conductor, and was music director of the Hamburg Philharmonic Orchestra (1961-73) and artistic director of Geneva's Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (1973-80). He also made regular appearances with Tokyo's NHK Orchestra, the Orchestre de Paris and the Israel Philharmonic. He crowned his career with his 10 years as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra (1993-2003), succeeding Riccardo Muti in the role.
Sawallisch's primary opera appointment was as music director of the Bavarian State Opera (1971-92), where he conducted 1,156 performances, including virtually every Strauss opera with the curious exception of Salome. Though Sawallisch's pianistic activities were mainly limited to chamber music and lied recitals with artists such as Schwarzkopf, Hermann Prey and Thomas Hampson, he played the entire first act of Die Walküre from the keyboard – nearly note perfect – when a snowstorm prevented Philadelphia Orchestra members from showing up on one occasion during the 1993-94 season.
Sawallisch made hundreds of recordings, his early efforts including concerto outings with the violinist Johanna Martzy that were suppressed because of tempo disagreements. He expressed affection for his recordings of Strauss's Capriccio with Schwarzkopf, Mozart piano concertos with Annie Fischer and his set of Schumann symphonies with the Dresden Staatskapelle.
Though his recording repertoire was mostly standard and conservative, his concert repertoire was full of contemporary music. In his late 70s, he premiered major orchestral pieces by the American composers Aaron Jay Kernis and Jennifer Higdon. His taste could be surprisingly idiosyncratic and he championed obscure Richard Strauss, such as The Happy Workshop.
Although he most wanted to revisit late Schumann works, such as the Requiem and Scenes from Goethe's Faust, the Philadelphia Orchestra's management prevailed upon Sawallisch to consolidate his many years with the Schumann symphonies in new recordings of them. Critics in New York as well as Philadelphia greeted the performances from which they were recorded with deep gratitude. But even as he was months away from his 80th birthday, Sawallisch would have preferred to push into less familiar repertoire: that was music that needed him more, and Sawallisch always put the needs of music first in his priorities.
Made conductor laureate of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2003, he went on to spend many years in retirement in his country house in Grassau, southern Germany. His primary musical outlet was playing the piano, which he did excellently and mostly for himself. For many years, until ill health prevented it, he received Philadelphia Orchestra musicians in his home when the orchestra was touring Europe.
His son Jörg died earlier this year.
- Wolfgang Sawallisch, conductor, born 26 August 1923; died 22 February 2013